What caused the obesity epidemic? What are the consequences?
HOUSTON – When it comes to the childhood obesity epidemic, the prevailing narrative is that overweight children — and their parents — lack the collective will power to put down the potato chips, pick up a jump rope and work at losing weight.
“… doctors specializing in obesity and weight loss say certain scientific and societal factors — including genetics, the rise of processed foods that include soybean oil and national overconsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages — are more likely to blame for childhood obesity than lazy kids or indulgent parents.
“Obesity is a disorder which, like venereal disease, is blamed upon the patient,” says obesity researcher Dr. George Bray, the opening lecturer at the first annual U.S. News Combating Childhood Obesity summit, held at Texas Children’s Hospital.
It’s the blame issue that stands in the way of progress in fighting obesity as a disease, when larger factors that can’t be controlled may be at the heart of the issue, says Bray, professor emeritus of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, who has been studying obesity among children for several decades.
“Obesity isn’t a disease of willpower — it’s a biological problem,” he says. “Genes load the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.”
In a panel analyzing why weight is difficult to lose, Kevin Hall, an obesity and diabetes researcher, says a new study he co-produced points the finger at highly processed food.
His study, published Thursday in the medical journal Cell Metabolism, showed that patients who ate minimally-processed food with easily identifiable ingredients ate less, and lost weight without trying, when compared with a group that had highly-processed, prepackaged, ready-to-eat food, even though the diets prepared for both groups had the same number of calories and macronutrients.
“What we saw, on average, was that people consumed 500 calories more” on the processed-food diet than those who ate food that didn’t go through a factory, says Hall, chief of the integrated physiology section at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “The ones on the unprocessed diet — they spontaneously lost weight.” It has been proposed that eating a diet for health (whole, “real” foods) can cause weight loss and maintenance of the loss compared to those who primary goal was simply weight loss alone.
In opening the summit, presenters tackled a question doctors and obesity researchers have grappled with a difficult question in fighting the disease: How did we get here?
Bray says studies trace the epidemic back to the ’60s and ’70s, when U.S consumption of soybean oil, most likely through processed-food production, spiked and, around the same time, Americans, including children, started to weigh more. Fats found in soybean oil, he says, were found in breast milk samples from the era.
“The fats in our food supply may well be playing a part in our inability to regulate” food intake, Bray says. However, this is just the tip of the iceburg. Likewise food portions have been shown graphically to double the size of those served beginning inn the 1970’s.
Meanwhile, the consumption of sugary soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi increased from just a few gallons per person per year to more than triple that by the end of the century. The rise of soft drink consumption between 1950 and 2000, he says, paralleled the increase in obesity; pregnant women who drank sugary soft drinks, Bray added, ended up passing the sugar on to their unborn children.
“It’s kind of maternal abuse of the fetus” where “the child has no control, only the mother has,” he says.
The U.S. News Combating Obesity summit convened top medical experts, hospital executives, pediatricians, community health leaders, advocates to exchange ideas and share practices that are helping to combat the nationwide obesity epidemic.
The percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity “has more than tripled since the 1970s,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to data from 2015-2016, the CDC reports, “nearly 1 in 5 school age children and young people (6 to 19 years) in the United States has obesity.”
Experts say the epidemic has long-term ramifications: Obese children who carry the weight can exhibit heart disease and type 2 diabetes as well as mobility and self-esteem issues. Unfortunately in order to reverse this trend, cultural changes will be required at many levels, to say the least. Can it happen?
U.S. News and World Report
Joseph P. Williams, Senior Editor
May 16, 2109
Scientific, Societal Factors to Blame for the Obesity Epidemic